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Building a Great Network

Deep and broad networks are critical for innovators and entrepreneurs. If you think of “schmoozing” when you think of networking, think again!

 

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Being a successful innovation leader within an established firm requires a strong networking capability. Yet in the Internet Age, it’s easy to forget that “network” originally referred to relationships between people, not computers, and that social networks such as Facebook or Twitter simply enhances our human ability to connect.  After all, the network that matters most to you will always be your own.

Having a robust network is one of the most important factors to succeeding as an innovator or entrepreneur, inside or outside a large corporation.  It pays to be deliberate about building breadth and depth into your network.  Here are a few guiding principles.

Simple rules rule:  The best networks are constructed with simple design principles, such as the “Wednesday 10,” a group of men who have gathered at a New York hotel every Wednesday since 1957, to build relationships, share insights of the day and support each other on professional basis.

They began with a few simple rules, according to a recent story in the Wall St. Journal. The group was “small enough to maintain intimacy yet large enough to ensure that at least 10 members would show up for each of the monthly Wednesday-night meetings.”  The group also limited membership to no more than two individuals from a particular industry, to counter the insularity driven by the demands of a career, especially when working for one company for a number of years.  However, only men were included in the group, an unfortunate vestige of the group’s formative years. Have you thought about what might be a sustainable size, meeting time and location for your group, and what commonalities will hold it together?

Determine your objectives:  Corporate innovation leaders know the importance of being able to call on a range of people all over the company, though it’s hard to know in advance who you’ll need on your side, or at least to stand out of the way. Alternately, are  you may want to build a professional network outside your company, to help keep your eyes open, your vision wide, and your options open.  You never know when an economic downturn, re-organization or political wrangling will oust even the best of executives.  Spending time on an external network can provide more sources of support and access when you’re facing challenges or pursuing new opportunities.

Build diversity into your group.  It’ss natural to congregate with people like yourself, so it can take work to ensure you reach out to and engage with a diverse group.  But don’t think diversity is synonymous with race or ethnicity.  Determine what diversity means for your network based on your group’s objectives.  If you want to reach across the company, make sure you invite people from many functions and business units.  If you’re interested in an external professional network to provide diverse opinions and access, then be deliberate about recruiting members from different backgrounds and professions with similar goals.  If you’re interested in building a social network across your entire industry, for instance, consider creating an intimate group to meet once a month that includes executives from across your industry’s value chain, from raw materials to consumer-facing companies.  (Of course, you’ll have to consider design principles that ensure you don’t run afoul of anti-trust regulators!)

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While social networking has enabled an array of interactions between people all over the world, the value of face-to-face time remains perhaps stronger than ever.  There’s immense strategic value in building bridges before you need them, to leverage the relationships, insights and perspectives of people from multiple backgrounds, and to understand that no one does anything great completely alone.  

Read more from Robert Wolcott and Michael Lippitz on how corporate entrepreneurs can take their vision to market and help their companies Grow From Within.

Robert Wolcott and Michael Lippitz are leading authorities on innovation and corporate entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and co-authors of Grow From Within: Mastering Corporate Entrepreneurship and Innovation (McGraw Hill, 2009). In the past six years, they have studied more than 30 companies across industry sectors and developed an ongoing dialogue with them about corporate entrepreneurship through the Kellogg Innovation Network (KIN).